Germany’s hope that Russian president Vladimir Putin might tolerate a face saving opportunity for all parties involved in the Ukrainian crisis is fading fast. A nebulous solution at the negotiating table is turning into a fata morgana. Putin is forcing Angela Merkel’s hand. The chancellor and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will soon face a stark choice—one between Russia and her Eastern partners in the European Union. This is a choice that Merkel has tried to avoid since the crisis erupted.
The chancellor could choose to appease Russia at all costs and preserve a tenuous relationship with the powerful country to the east, hoping that one day it will be free from Putin. But sticking to her cautious step-by-step approach in this case would not only alienate most Eastern Europeans, including those in Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States, but also irritate a suspicious Washington that is growing tired of being lectured by Germans about the so-called NSA scandal. Alternatively, she could draw a line, agree to more than just symbolic sanctions against Russia’s rulers, and jeopardize her fraught relationship with Moscow.
For days, Merkel tried to square the circle, talking about contact groups, the deployment of international observers in Crimea—in short, advocating various diplomatic delay tactics that would eventually provide some cover for the fact that, ultimately, Crimea is lost to Russia.
Indeed, the real challenge is not so much to preserve a Ukrainian Crimea, but rather to make sure that the whole of Ukraine does not turn into easy prey for the Russian ruler. Please don’t misunderstand—Putin’s badly disguised forces do not need to invade the rest of the country in order to control it. An occupied Crimea would project enough Russian power beyond the peninsula, but only if the rest of the country turns into a hopeless place, riddled with chronic corruption and permanent political instability.
In order to avoid this outcome, Merkel has made it clear that she will be less reluctant to provide financial help to Kiev—far less reluctant than in the case of Greece. Indeed, her reaction to the events so far suggests that she thinks this crisis is far more serious than the debt crisis triggered by Greece four years ago.
Ultimately, both the debt crisis and the situation in Ukraine are powerful reminders for Merkel that Europe’s failures at speeding up the process of economic and political integration carry a price. If Merkel really thinks that Putin lives in a different world, the feeling must be mutual. That is why the Judo-loving Russian president has turned a moment of tactical weakness—the fall of his protégée, the president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich—into a possible strategic advantage.
It is up to Merkel to rally Europeans around a bolder strategy and reassure Americans that, over time, Europe will be capable of dealing with its regional challenges. Such a strategy will have to involve targeted sanctions with lots of bite, such as targeting Russian banks that are known for dealing in dirty money or funnel funds for arms deals that are helping some of the worst dictators around the world
However, it is also clear that imposing sanctions on Russia could carry a real price for the German economy very soon. Putin may have interpreted Merkel’s stubborn reluctance to provide financial help for fellow euro zone members in the past few years as a sign of national egoism that can be easily exploited. It is now up to Merkel to make a careful cost benefit analysis and prove him wrong mindful of the fact that, in Putin’s Russia, cool-headed delay tactics are not perceived as a sign of resolve.